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Hon. John J. Hall, Chairman, and a Representative in Congress from the State of New York

Thank you all for coming today. I am pleased that so many folks could attend this oversight hearing on the “Impact of OIF/OEF on the VA Claims Process.”

Regardless of whether or not you agree or disagree with the war in Iraq, I think most- if not all- members of Congress believe that our young men and women who served in OIF/OEF deserve the best medical care and all the help we can give them in transitioning from military to civilian life. Nothing bothers me more than those who say they support the troops, but turn a cold shoulder when those same troops return home and become veterans.

The purpose of today’s hearing is to ensure that the problems discovered at Walter Reed Army Medical Center are not the tip of the iceberg with respect to how prepared we are for our returning service members. Since the jurisdiction of this subcommittee is not veterans’ health care, but veterans’ benefits, we are going to focus on the VA’s claims process and how it has been impacted by OIF/OEF. However, as an aside, I would like to say that I am sponsoring a bill to allow Active Duty service members the option of receiving medical treatment at their local VA hospital if they so desire.

In addition to looking at whether the VA is equipped to handle the claims of returning service members, this hearing will also examine reports of rating discrepancies among Active and Reserve veterans. Recently, media reports stated that Reserve and National Guard service members had a greater risk of their claims being denied or lowered than their Active Duty counterparts. I don’t think there should be a Reserve/Active Duty distinction with respect to a veteran who suffers an injury.

In determining whether the VA claims’ system can handle the influx of returning OIF/OEF service members, we will hear from GAO who will discuss the current claims backlog and possible solutions to fix the problem. As most know, the VA has had a claims backlog for many years now and it only continues to grow.

At last count, the average wait to have a VA claim processed, had grown from 2 months to 6 months, and even much longer in some areas of the country.  From December 2000 to March 2007, the backlog of compensation claims grew from 363,412 to 632,140.  

Next, we will hear from Professor Linda Bilmes who has written a widely acclaimed paper entitled, “The Long Term Costs of Providing Veterans Medical Care and Disability Benefits.”  I will be most interested to learn whether or not Professor Bilmes expects the rate of OIF/OEF claims to grow significantly.  Furthermore, I want to hear her thoughts about how the DoD and VA define the term “casualty.” 

After Professor Bilmes, we will hear from three veterans’ organizations: (1) Veterans for America; (2) Iraq and Afghanistan; and (3) VoteVets.  I want to hear their assessment of how the VA is handling the claims of returning OIF/OEF veterans.   Finally, we will hear from the Veteran Benefits Administration, which has the Herculean task of ensuring that our veterans receive the benefits they deserve.  I am specifically interested in learning more about the VA’s new priority processing for OIF/OEF veterans which was recently instituted.  Also, I want to know about the VA’s projection for future OIF/OEF claims.  Specifically, I want to understand how they can predict an actual decrease in the number of claims in 2007 and 2008 in light of the President’s escalation of the Iraq War. 

As I stated earlier, I am concerned about an overall lack of preparedness by this Administration with respect to the War in Iraq, whether it be insufficient body armor or inadequate housing at Walter Reed.  The cost for caring for our veterans must be understood by Congress and the Administration as an ongoing cost of war--veterans shouldn’t suffer because of poor planning.

One only has to read the March 5, 2007 edition of Newsweek, which I will be introducing into the record, to see how some returning OIF/OEF veterans are falling through the cracks.  On page 33, there is a story about Patrick Feges who was wounded in October 2004 and had to wait 17 months until his first VA disability check arrived.  His mother, an elementary school teacher, took a second job at McDonalds to help support him.  Mr. Feges’ claim was only approved after Newsweek and the Veterans for America began looking into his case.  I thank both for their work. 

I am holding this hearing today to see if Mr. Feges 17 month delay is an anomaly or evidence of a systemic problem for returning OIF/OEF veterans.  If it is the latter, I would be interested in hearing any and all recommendations from the speakers today on how we can fix the problem.  6 months, not to mention 17 months, can be devastating to a person who is rated unemployable and is without any other means of support.

[Articles Submitted for the Record by Chairman Hall follows:]

Newsweek, March 5, 2007, Issue, "How the U.S. Is Failing Its War Veterans," By Dan Ephron and Sarah Childress

The Journal News, Original Publication: March 13, 2007, "Pomona Veteran Shares Story of Fighting for Health Benefits," By Hema Easley

Times Herald-Record, March 13, 2007, "Vietnam Vet Fights for Fellow Soldiers," By Greg Bruno